In the harvest season around here it can easily take twice as long to get anywhere on Chianti’s already curvy, slow and intoxicating roads. In September and October tractors pull grapes to local wineries and in November they haul olives to frantoi, the mills that, for a brief period each year work around the clock pressing olives. It’s not hard to find yourself, as I did recently, slowed to a crawl behind a tractor close to midnight on a Friday night. I was on my way home from a dinner celebrating the first oil of the season. We’d poured freshly pressed oils from diverse regions of Chianti over enourmous, perfectly grilled bistecche and poured more into dipping bowls for the pinzimonia that accompanied it. There was different oil for the bread too. I tasted and then waited for the oil to impress but sadly it failed. Fourteen years living here and it is possible I am getting blasé about new oil.Perhaps its just that I have yet to sample the season’s best. It could also be this is not a great year for Chianti EVO.
Some but not all of the new oil I tried that night had the characteristic lime green, almost neon vibrancy of the best new Tuscan oils. But several were yellow, the faded colour of our year old oil back home at Petraia. Several offered grassiness on the back of the tongue and a peppery choke in the throat, but they all lacked that forceful one-two punch of bitterness and pungency I expect from new oil. Missing also was the sensation I look forward to most from new oil. It’s a high really, a fleeting sense of exhilaration and well-being that comes after the oil slides down your throat and it feels somehow as if the lifeblood of the plant itself has been injected directly into your veins.
This year there were more olives on our own trees than I have ever seen. The fruit lucky enough to survive our late summer hail was abundant and plump thanks to the torrential rainfall earlier in the season. The olives were gigantic and also gorgeous by comparison to standards set previously. Voluptous specimens to be sure but excess water in most fruit is a defect that impairs flavor. Normally I hold back a few kilograms of olives to cure and send the rest off for pressing. But this year I decided these water logged beauties were probably not worth turning into oil. Instead, their fleshy fruit looked promising for table olives, so for 2013 we harvested and cured our entire crop.
I usually find a brine cure or salamoia is the best way to preserve Petraia’s olives as they are mostly smaller varieties like Ravece, Leccio del Corno and Frantoio grown specifically for oil. To do this we put them in glazed terra cotta crocks or large glass jars where they sit under a 10% salt brine in my dispensa until most of the bitterness leaches out. This process takes several months and during that time we change the brine every few weeks. Once the olives are palatable we rinse them and transfer them to glass jars and a lighter brine, usually around 5% salt. These jars I keep in my “ferment fridge” where I store our lacto fermented vegetables and fruit as well as our salumi and there they keep well for up to a year. Before I use a jar, I rinse the brine off and let them soak again, this time in water, to reduce their salinity.
We also have one tree at Petraia that produces larger olives meant for the table and with those I take a different approach. I salt them lightly and bake them at a low temperature slowly, for day or two, either in our wood burning oven after it has cooled down from bread baking or on a shelf above our wood stove where the air is warm. After a day or two they turn black and shrivel up and have lost their bitterness.
They are ready to be tossed in some olive oil and packed into jars with herbs, spices and some lemon or orange zest. The advantage of this method is that the olives are ready to eat in a few days rather than a few months. But this year all of our olives were huge and with so many fleshy, fat olives I decided to modify this technique to see if a dry cure at a cool room temperature might better preserve their flavour and so far I am delighted with the results. Here’s what I did:
First I weighed the fresh olives and then tossed to coat them in lots of sea salt using a ratio of 50% salt to olives.
The olives sat in my cool kitchen in a cheesecloth lined sieve for 3 to 4 weeks until they turned black, shriveled up and had leeched most of their bitter water.
Then I rinsed them in cold water and placed them in the dehydrator for several hours at 30C until they were completely dry.
I tossed the dry olives with enough olive oil to coat them along with some chili, garlic, lemon zest and fresh bay leaf.
Then I packed some into jars for immediate use and vacuum packed the rest for longer term storage in the refridgerator.
Apart from serving these olives as an antipasto with our salumi we add them to bread doughs, focaccia, stews, pasta sauces and cocktails. We candy them to serve with prosciutto and figs. We pit and dehydrate them to pulverize into a powder. Olive powder is useful for garnish or for adding to cracker dough, quick breads and even sauces like béchamel. This year, with so many olives I am sure we will be coming up with even more uses for them. Stay tuned.